ascent vs. descent

ascent vs descentlast wednesday at our house of refuge we kicked off our summer journeying through down we go: living into the wild ways of Jesus.  at first i wasn’t really excited about the reality that it won the vote (the group decided together what to do for the summer), but after the idea settled in i realized it was a great opportunity to practice together.  we also have some new friends joining us for the summer & they bring new life and perspective that will make it extra fun.

the biggest overall theme in down we go is the idea of a life of descent as opposed to a life of ascent.  what does that really mean?

for me, the theology of ascent is where we travel “up” toward God and away from life, pain, and our problems and become more and more “spiritual” in the process.  it is about rising above, working toward success, seeking comfort & security, and working toward “more, better”, whatever that may look like. there’s a high level of certainty in this theology, clear answers & prescriptions for moving forward.  it’s deeply embedded into not only much of church thinking, but also the ethos of the world.  we are subtly & directly taught that life is about upward mobility.

a theology of descent is the journey down into the muck & mire of people’s real experiences, into the places that Jesus seemed to go, trusting in God’s grace and redemption. it’s about entering into pain instead of avoiding it, engaging in the grit of real life instead of trying to escape it.  it’s about letting go of comfort, predictability, and the drive for “success” and instead turning our attention, lives and hearts toward engaging in more meaningful relationships with people in the here and now.

in down we go, this is what i say about downward mobility:  “it is a matter of the heart, not financial resources. it is losing our lives instead of protecting them. giving away our hearts instead of insulating them. intersecting with pain instead of numbing it out. entering into relationship with people different from us instead of staying comfortably separated. learning instead of teaching. practicing instead of theorizing.”

on wednesday night we brainstormed lists of characteristics/reactions/thoughts associated with both of these, from our experiences.  these aren’t all inclusive but just some unedited ideas that we popped out there together.


orthodoxy, not good enough, “once saved always saved”, hypocrisy, victory, we are deserving of hell, hierarchical structure, legalism, banging the Bible/Bible thumping, certainty, never ending ladder, “in Jesus’ name”, if you don’t believe ___, then ___”, defined gender roles, living for the level up, us vs. them, separation, arch of safety or “bubble of protection”, addiction to spiritual high, all about your relationship with God


disillusionment, free to be you, practical, tension, process, journey, time, humility, realizing our humanity, God within us, less shaming, despair and loss in community, de-programming, back to basics, life-giving, transforming, serenity prayer, psalm 46:10-“cease striving and know that i am God”, equality, more about your relationship with God through others

to me, the central difference is in a life of ascent, there is a striving, working harder, trying harder that is somehow built on pride.  at our group a friend described it like a ladder where just when you think you’re almost there, it extends.  in a life of descent, it’s about a letting go, realizing our humanness & limitations, and is centered on an attitude of humility.

i am struck, more than ever, how much easier a life of ascent really is.  it does offer some protection from the grit and grime of real life and centers on our “personal relationship with God”.  oh, that is so much easier!  a life of descent strips away the protection and forces us to be tangled and mixed up with the riff-raff (our own & others!) and through those relationships we are spiritually formed–hopefully more and more into Christ’s likeness, embodied by love & hope.

yeah, it’s a wild paradox that the journey down somehow brings us up, closer to God & others & ourselves in all kinds of beautiful, unexpected ways.

i do not want to dismiss for a moment that an ascent theology works for a lot of people. i don’t want to dishonor the ways that is what people are looking for or sometimes need.  but for me, it outlasted its usefulness, and God beckoned me down.  i am very thankful.

for you, what are some of the differences between ascent vs. descent?






Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • I think a life of ascent only seems easier … but once a life of descent is begun, we realize it’s where we’ve meant to be all our life … free to be ourselves bathed in God’s grace …

    The words from the list which stood out to me are “Not good enough” in the ascent list and “less shaming” in the descent one…

    • thanks, mar, i agree. i always forget to say that part, really, using the words “so hard” vs. “so easy” all the time ha ha! the reality is that ascent wasn’t really easier. it just seems easier now. when actually descent is, because it is filled with freedom and grace. thanks for sharing!

  • Hmm…. waiting eagerly until I can get the book. 🙂
    Hmm… you said “i am struck, more than ever, how much easier a life of ascent really is. it does offer some protection from the grit and grime of real life and centers on our “personal relationship with God”. oh, that is so much easier!”
    Yes and no. I think that even within this ascent bubble, if we are truly working on a real relationship with God, he will lead us out and down. Was true for me, at least. 🙂

    • That’s what I was trying to say, Katherine .. you said it way better 🙂

    • thanks katherine, yeah, i do think that so many friends i know hit that point somewhere on their journey where they realized that something just wasn’t working anymore, too much emptiness & tiredness, and God stirred up change and the shift happened. i wish there were more models for that transition for people so it didn’t have to be so disorienting and scary.

      • Disorienting and scary. It is that. But it is so worth it. I think the only way it can truly happen is if there is a foundation of real relationship with God…He will lead us through being disoriented and scared and freaked out… 🙂

  • The famous Puritan “Valley of Vision prayer” reads:

    Let me learn by paradox
    that the way down is the way up,
    that to be low is to be high,
    that the broken heart is the healed heart,
    that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
    that the repenting soul is the victorioua soul,
    that to have nothing is to possess all,
    that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
    that to give is to receive,
    that the valley is the place of vision.”

    • oh mar, that is so beautiful and i had never seen before. thank you so much for sharing.

  • I am almost certain that sometimes terminology or words can get misinterpreted as being ascent theology.
    I believe I have known and lived descent and believe it is where Jesus is…lives. I have a lot of experience with some of the toughest cases that came directly off the streets…problem is, I am legally bound to be careful with these stories. I could change or leave the name out, but describing the incident may lead someone to the story that they remember hearing on the news about this person involved in a horrible crime, etc. All that being said, I was basically rehabilitating these people to health so, once they were “healthy enough” they could be taken to prison. However, the stories I heard and connections I made were some of the most significant ones I’ve ever experienced. One, usually being the first person that ever truly listened to them and two, usually being the first person to tell them they were forgiven.
    Somewhat of a tangent, but all that being said, I DO believe in descent in the sense of “going down”, being with people in tough places, letting go of worldly success and such.
    However, when I look back at my 20 years with Jesus, think of my own wordly losses and experiences and then relationship experiences like ones I described above, well, I think there has been “ascent” in the sense of growth, maturity, knowing Him and experiencing Him more (THROUGH these types of things).
    When someone mentions “the next level”, yes, they are referencing scripture and MAYBE talking about some type of spiritual ascension. BUT, it doesn’t mean anything on the outside has changed or any kind of worldly success or that ascent has taken place spiritually to make them “more holy” than the next person. I think it just means a “deeper” sense of Him or growth. I believe He does promise that He will not leave us where we’re at(will complete the work He started), correct? Maybe deeper or growth would be better words than “next level” or “spiritual ascension”? Milk vs. solid food type of thought?
    I don’t know.
    I guess I just believe my heart has known descent and has been stirred towards decent, but words and true hearts desire and intention always get misinterpreted.
    Lastly, I have often pondered why He’s taken me to so many indigenous cultures to work. I have often pondered why He had a friend encourage me to study the Beattitudes a few years ago…spent months meditating on them and then, ended up writing a poem about them.
    Preparation? Stirring? I don’t know. I just know I’m doing my best to press in…oh, and did I happen to mention I’m just down right stubborn and tenacious sometimes?! 😉
    Again, loving the book…loving the stirring…loving the confirmation.
    God bless you, PK.

    • thanks tammy for reading and processing and considering all kinds of beautiful stuff. God is fun. i think sometimes semantics messes everything up and makes it harder. even as i re-read these i realize how easy it is to keep everything in little boxes and there are so many things that transcend our language limitations. somehow one of the biggest differences seems to be between being in a christian bubble vs. being in the world. thanks for your tenacious and beautiful heart!

  • i resonate with the idea that the mental picture throws a sci-fi curveball. on a hike, i like the downhill way better than the climb. so, in the near term, ascent is way easier. but what happens if you make it? a life time later you are at the top left with Jesus words, “what does it gain you if you gain the whole world, but lose your soul?
    i miss certainty for sure, i miss being right and gathering in large groups those who were “with me”- for me this has been hard to let go…

  • Kathy,

    Well thanks to Jeremy, I now have another book to add to an already too long list.

    What you are doing resonates very strongly with me. I am the president of a small motorcycle ministry in Colorado Springs. We are dedicated to getting down into the mess and building real relationships with the messiest of people. We spend our time between homeless outreach and the hard core motorcycle world.

    I am also in a semi-leadership role in a small bible church in Colorado Springs that is being pushed by its pastor from a mega-church model into a every-member-ministry/community model.

    I feel like I could learn a lot from what you are doing. I may just have to bring myself and some of my riders to one of your Saturday meetings. I see that you are having BBQ this Saturday…Hmmmmm.

    Men of Praise Motorcycle Ministry

    • Dear FedEx,
      Oh please do come visit us! We would love to have you and your friends come hang out with us! Aaaaaand, we will have ice cream sundaes at the end! 🙂 🙂 🙂


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